What Is It?
Famed as a source of the blue-black berries used to make elderberry wine and jelly, both the berries and flowers from the elder shrub (Sambucus nigra L.) have been used medicinally for centuries to fight off respiratory infections and other ailments. American elder (Sambucus candensis L.) is found in the eastern part of North America. What accounts for the plant’s therapeutic action is not well understood, but its healing properties are thought to derive from substances called flavonoids. These substances act as in the body in a variety of ways. As antihistamines, bioflavonoids can be helpful in the treatment of allergies. As antioxidants, they counteract the cell destruction caused by toxic molecules called free radicals. But it is the third property of flavonoids, an antiviral effect, that seems to make elderberry a clinically useful plant.
In one laboratory study, the combination of elderberry with St. John’s wort and soapwort actually inhibited the growth of both the influenza virus and the herpes virus. A double blind clinical trial of an elderberry preparation was proven to be an effective treatment for influenza infection. Although the physicians performing the study used the commercial preparation Sambucol, it is generally agreed among herbalists that elderberry in any form has anti-influenza properties.
Specifically, elder flower may help to:
Act as an antioxidant and protect the body against damage from free radicals
Control cough. A cup of elder flower tea may help to break up the bronchial secretions of chest colds and relieve coughs. It’s uncertain, however, whether this results from an action of the elder itself, or from the heat and steam produced by the tea, which loosen mucus and make it easier to expel.
• Liquid extract
• Tea bag
Liquid elderberry extract: one or two teaspoonfuls three to four times a day
Tea (prepare as per instructions below) one cupful three or four times a day
• Store dried elder flowers in an airtight container that protects them from light and moisture.
• To use commercial preparations containing elder, follow the package directions.
• Elder is often sold in combination products for reducing fever, which combine it with yarrow flower and peppermint leaf.
Guidelines for Use
• Make fresh elder flower tea every time, rather than brewing large quantities.
• To make tea, use 2 teaspoons dried flowers per cup of water; drink as hot as possible.
• There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with elder.
Possible Side Effects
• With normal use, there are no side effects associated with elder. Although the ripe berries are edible, if they are eaten raw they may cause nausea and vomiting.
• The flowers and ripe fruit of elderberry are safe to consume, especially when dried or cooked.
• Elder roots, leaves, and stems can cause diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, and should not be taken internally. The stems actually contain the potentially fatal poison, cyanide–do not consume them.
David Edelberg, MD